The Last Pinball Machine Company

Pinball has an extensive place in our popular culture.  It is a core element tovideos which remind us of our childhood,rock operas, and the coolness embodied by the Fonz.  But when was the last time you played on an actual pinball machine?  For that matter, when was the last time you’ve even seen one?

For decades, three companies — Bally, Gottlieb, and Williams — made the vast majority of pinball games.   But all three companies have either gone out of business or stopped producing pinball games — Williams, for example, now makes slot machines.  With video arcades giving way to Nintendo Wiis and Sony PlayStations, the demand for immobile, 300 pound, 6 foot tall pinball machines (at $5,000 a pop!) is waning, and only one pinball game manufacturer still exists: Stern Pinball of Illinois.  Stern produces about 10,000 new machines a year, and currently have five active titles, with a sixth one (Avatar) due out soon.

Given pinball’s place in the cultural fabric of the gaming world, Gary Stern, the company’s president, expects to be in business for the foreseeable future.  However, he told Parade magazine that “the economics of starting a pinball company today wouldn’t make sense.”  Perhaps that’s why the company, family owned — it was founded by Stern’s father Samuel — sees itself as the keepers of the game.  On their website, they maintain a database of pinball machines so that silver ball players can find a place to test their mettle.  Company policy requires that all employees play at least 15 minutes of pinball each day.  Stern himself likens the game to “magic” and readily admits that the company is “in love” with the business of pinball.

One can only hope that their passion for the game will keep the game alive.

Bonus fact: Stern Pinball probably won’t find any customers in the tiny town of Beacon, New York, a hamlet of about 1 8,000 people located an hour and a half north of Manhattan.  Beacon has a law on the books banning pinball games — and the city enforced the law just a few week ago, shuttering a retro arcade museum due to its active pinball machines.

From the Archives: Out of Gas: The world is also running out of helium.

Related: Before they’re no more, buy yourself a pinball machine! Only $5,000 or so.

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